Saturday 3rd March, 2018
We arise and look out of the hotel window and can’t even see the garden. It is raining. No it is seriously raining. I don’t mean “slip on a wet-proof” raining, or “hoist an umbrella” raining, I mean “cats and dogs, stair rods, p…ing it down” raining. David has parked the car, tidily, about 30m from our covered walkway and in retrieving it gets royally soaked. I fear glaciers (which are a 20 minute hike from the nearest car park) are off for today. We drive hopefully to the top of a wiggly road, itself a small river, labelled optimistically: “Franz-Joseph Glacier, Vehicle Access Point” and watch assorted other hopefuls peering out of their car windscreens and shaking their heads. We give it 15 minutes, say to ourselves “Well, we’ve bounced on glaciers long ago on a sunny day in Canada” and retreat back down the wiggly road. Don’t even ask if we saw Mount Cook. David is convinced it doesn’t exist, never having met a traveller who possesses a photograph of it.
Slightly disappointed, we wend our way back to Highway 6 and head north to Punakaiki, our next, and northernmost, stop. Within 30km, the skies above us begin to clear and the sun comes out. We consider retracing our steps and having another go, but as Sue, my geographer, points out, “Weather is local, especially in mountains and it is possibly / probably / certainly still raining on our glacier”. We decide that discretion is the better part of Valerie and head on.
The coastal road is unremarkable. It borders a wide strip of flat land largely given to grazing sheep, cattle, deer and the odd herd of alpacas. We pause at the small town of Hokitika (NZ’s answer to Chicken Tikka. Ho Ho), a former gold town, now given over to indigenous green-stone (jade) carvers. Its shoreline is peppered with drift wood – whole tree trunks washed down the rivers into the Tasman sea. Each January there is a festival of “Driftwood and sand”, in which flotsam and jetsam is fashioned into all sorts of arty crafty sculpture.
We visit “Eco world”, national kiwi centre. It is a small aquarium-cum-kiwi habitat. We spend an amusing hour looking at huge, 100 year old fresh water eels, non-native trout and salmon, glow worms by the million in makeshift caves and a couple of kiwi birds in an enclosure where day and night is reversed. We stand silently allowing our eyes to become accustomed to the gloom and there they are, the size of large chickens, snuffling about in the forest floor habitat of their enclosure. Sue is now satisfied that she has honoured her quest to see these elusive and quaint creatures.
Onwards via Greymouth, and undistinguished, former gold town and the railhead for our scenic train ride to Punakaiki our next resting point.
Punakaiki is famous for its curious “pancake rock” formations at Dolomite point. Some while ago, when these things were on the sea floor, limestone layers not only got seriously squashed, but also interleaved with layers of mud. No one knows how. When the layers were thrust up the softer mudstone layers got washed out leaving formations that resemble stacks of pancakes – a process known to geologists as stylobedding. Anyway they are worth a look and thousands of folk, including us, come to see them.
Our billet for the night is a delightful small hotel on the sea shore, where after dinner we are lulled to sleep by the sound of gently pounding surf. Bliss